Management Consultants Navigating Competing Systems of Engagement

Hartley, Jeanette (2022). Management Consultants Navigating Competing Systems of Engagement. PhD thesis The Open University.



The aim of the research was to explore how management consultants experience and navigate between the competing demands of their client, consultancy, and personal systems of engagement. The internal, consultancy-facing role of the management consultant, which involves ongoing responsibilities for the day-to-day operation and success of their consultancy, sometimes alongside their client work, has not been researched sufficiently. The implication for the day-to-day experiences of management consultants, is that they must balance their participation between three, often competing social systems of their client, their consultancy, and their personal life. Their skills in managing transitions between these systems are worthy of study.

The thesis draws on empirical research performed with practicing management consultants in 2019. I used conceptions of liminality to provide a theoretical framework (Turner, 1967, 1969; Van Gennep et al., 2019). The research design is based on Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis, a qualitative approach concerned with in-depth exploration of lived experience, and with how people make sense of that lived experience (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009). Data collection focused primarily on semi-structured interviews across three consultancy settings.

The research contributes to existing theory by establishing that management consultants have an internal, consultancy-facing role which for some may be substantial. The research also establishes that management consultants’ experiences of liminality are far more complex than previously represented in the literature. Liminality for management consultants is neither linear nor permanent but non-linear, multi directional and multi-dimensional. They experience a recurrent kind of liminality based on multiple belonging. None of the forms of liminality experienced by management consultants corresponds closely to the idea of a three-stage linear process tied to rites of passage in the anthropological literature (Turner, 1967, 1969; Van Gennep et al., 2019). The research also contributes to the slowly growing body of work using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) in business and management research.

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